Henry Cooper On The Night He Dropped Ali

In this interview from the archives, the legendary Henry Cooper recalls the night he fought Clay at Arsenal's Highbury...
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In this interview from the archives, the legendary Henry Cooper recalls the night he fought Clay at Arsenal's Highbury...

On the night of 21 May 1966, Highbury held its breath in anticipation of one of the most awaited sporting encounters of the decade. The sport was not football but boxing. And the stars of the show were Henry Cooper and Muhammed Ali.

There was already history between the two fighters. Three years earlier, the British public had got their first proper glimpse of the up-and-coming 21-year old Cassius Clay, when the two boxers met for the first time at Wembley, in a non-title fight. Cooper had started as favourite on that occasion, but it was Clay who claimed the victory. However, the enduring memory that night came at the end of the fourth round, when the Londoner had unleashed a powerful left hook to send Clay flying into the ropes and leave him flat on the canvas, something no other boxer had ever managed. ‘Enery’s ‘Ammer’, as that punch became known, remains the pinnacle of British boxing lore.

Luckily, for Clay, the bell came just in time. Cooper remembers the moment clearly: “I thought that was it. He was in a lot of trouble, his pupils had gone inside his head. Then Ali went back in to his corner with his trainer, Angelo Dundee. He said he had torn one of his gloves. That gave him a minute to recover, which, for a fit person, is time enough.” Clay bounced back with an incredible flurry of punches, to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, as the fight was stopped in the fifth round. The following year he defeated Sonny Liston to claim the world heavyweight title.

That meant that the stakes for the rematch three years on were much higher. This time Henry, 32 was challenging Clay, now 24, for his crown. And a venue capable of living up to the drama of the occasion was needed.

“The fight promoter was a real showman,” recalls Cooper, “so he wanted a big open-air show. Promoters these days aren’t willing to be so imaginative. We tried to get it staged at Arsenal and, thank God, we got it. And we had around 45,000, which was more than we’d got for the Wembley fight.

“I think it must have been the biggest event outside football to have been staged at Highbury.”

The exact number was 45,973, not including a couple of hundred press seats.

Demand for tickets was huge and the night was, not surprisingly, a sell out. Thousands of fans were left disappointed thronging outside the stadium. Prices ranged from two guineas for ‘standing under cover’ to seats at four, six, 10 and 15 guineas. Among those taking their seats in the crowd, were Hollywood stars, such as Lee Marvin and George Raft who flew in to snap up some of the best ringside seats, which were priced at the then princely sum of 20 guineas – which would be an arguably modest £250 in today’s money.

The chants were audible from the dressing rooms too: “The atmosphere was so thick that you could cut it with a knife,” recalls Cooper. “Even from the dressing room, all I could hear was the crowd shouting my name.”

Never had a fight in Britain generated such excitement, or such commercial potential. As The Times reported on the day of the fight, 40,000 British fans were able to see the encounter beamed into 17 cinemas; 30,000 more watched it on pay-television, while an Early Bird transmission enabled over 20 million television viewers to see the fight in the United States.

Cooper could hope to earn £40,000 in addition to a £16,000 offer to sell his story to a newspaper, but that sum was dwarfed by the £215,000 Clay expected to earn.

Henry Cooper was already a familiar face at Arsenal. Not only was he a regular on matchdays, he had also played in a few of the 'Boxers & Jockeys' fixtures that became an annual tradition at Highbury in the fifties.

“Because I was - and still am - an Arsenal supporter, I knew a lot of the team during Bertie Mee’s time as manager. I even used the same physio and surgeon as the players. At one point, Bob Wilson broke his wrist at the same time I was recovering from injury, so we trained together a lot, and got on like a house on fire – he’s a lovely bloke.”

Transforming a football stadium into a venue suitable for a world championship boxing bout, required Herculanean efforts on the parts of everyone at the Club. Arsenal director Ken Friar, was already working for the club back then and recalls the six weeks leading up to the fight as “probably the most hectic of my life.”

"We were approached by promoters Sam Burns and Jarvis Astaire to host the event about three months before the bout was scheduled to take place,” continues Friar. “We were putting in about 18 hours every day working on something that was completely different to what we were all used to at Highbury. I think I probably learned more about life during that time as well; it was a real eye opener.

“We had to apply for a theatre licence from the council to stage the event. Initially, we applied for a higher capacity but we were turned down.

“The logistics of transforming the ground into a venue suitable for a boxing match were amazing. The whole pitch was renovated and re-seeded before it was boarded over, and we had to make sure there were the necessary gulleys for lighting and TV cable. We then hired hundreds of chairs for the ringside seats. The ring itself was constructed by the promoters, but everyone at the Club, including the trainee players, helped create the arena.

One of those trainees was a young man called Charlie George. “I was in my first year as an apprentice at Arsenal – I’d have been 16 years old,” he recalls. “The season had just finished, and the apprentices were drafted in to help lay the boards down onto the pitch. It wasn't a bad job really - better than cleaning boots or scrubbing the bath for the first team!

“I think we might have got paid a few shillings extra for helping out, but better still we got to watch the fight, which was a great experience. The atmosphere in the stadium was absolutely incredible.”

Right up until the day of the fight, as Ken Friar recalls, it was a case of all hands on deck trying to sort out last-minute problems and changes to the layout of the venue.

“I remember at 1am on the morning of the fight we found out that the lights overhanging the ring were obscuring the TV cameras, so that had to be changed. I also recall an American TV company constructing a scaffolded gantry in the middle of the ringside seats after they had signed a late deal with the promoters. Incidents like that seemed to occur throughout the build up though - it's hard to explain just how many unforeseen problems we had to deal with.

"Having said all that, when the fight finally got under way, it was an unforgettable occasion: the lights piercing through the smoke – everyone seemed to be smoking - onto the ring as the whole stadium chanted: 'Henry, Henry, Henry'. It really was electric."

The chants were audible from the dressing rooms too: “The atmosphere was so thick that you could cut it with a knife,” recalls Cooper. “Even from the dressing room, all I could hear was the crowd shouting my name.”

“My manager, Jim Wicks had organised a Rolls Royce to take me to Highbury, and we had two police outriders providing us with an escort as we approached the ground. At one point we just ground to a halt, because there were so many people out in the streets – there must have been thousands outside the stadium trying to get in.

“And the dressing rooms, by the way, were sheer class. The facilities were incredible. I’d never seen anything like it. As a boxer in those days you were used to having to get ready in some pretty rough spots. I’d never seen anything like the facilities at Arsenal. I tell you what - if I was a young player and I saw those dressing rooms at Arsenal, that would be enough to make me decide which club I wanted to play for.”

After the various supporting bouts had been fought, the two fighters emerged for the main event at 10pm.

The 32-year old Cooper fought bravely, using his big left hooks to counter Clay's nimble footwork and lightning-quick jabs. And all the while, the best part of 45,000 voices were urging him on.

“I do remember that I was starting to get to him, and the crowd were really getting behind me.” But Clay was homing in on his weak point, above his eye.”

One minute and 38 seconds into the sixth round, Cooper’s hopes of a historic victory were dashed, when the referee, Tommy Little, stopped the fight. A deep gash over his left eye forced him to concede victory to Clay. Cooper had to be rushed to Guy’s Hospital.

“The cut was so bad I had to go see a plastic surgeon. The way Ali fought, he was the type of guy who dragged your fresh, so he hurt me really badly – I needed a hell of a lot of stitches.”

There was controversy in the immediate aftermath, as Jim Wicks claimed that Clay had butted Cooper and should have been disqualified. Cooper felt there had been a clash of heads. Replays, though, suggested that Clay had landed a fair punch. But Cooper says he has never lost sleep wondering what might have been.

A few years back, Cooper, by then Sir Henry, received a phone call while he was taking part in a charity golf do in North London.

“Hello Henry. It's Muhammad Ali," came the voice at the other end of the phone.

“Ali gave me a call because it was the 40th anniversary of that fight [the Wembley bout in 1963] — which was the first time somebody had knocked him on the seat of his pants,” recalls Cooper. “He asked me how I was and how old I was now. I told him I was 69 and he said, ‘man, you’re old'. He's still as cheeky as ever.”

Cooper was never unduly riled by Ali’s ‘I am the greatest’ routine. “Ali was different,” he explains. "He did it with some wit for a start. And he knew that you knew his antics were just his way of scoring a psychological point. He always did it with a little twinkle in his eye. You could always see his tongue in his cheek, and he meant you to.

“We're still friends. Fighters always are.”

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